The State of Craft Beer: Wisconsin breweries on the rise

POTOSI, VERONA, Wis. (WMTV) - In a NBC15 Special Report, Gabriella Rusk examined the recent popularity of local breweries and the rich history beer has in the Badger state.

Empty beer bottles waiting on the bottling line at Potosi Brewery. Source: Gabriella Rusk, WMTV

The State of Craft Beer

On a Thursday night after a long day plowing the city's streets, you might find Chad Ogden enjoying a pint of his favorite Hop Haus Brewery IPA.

""Very rarely do I come across a beer that I don't like, " Ogden joked.

He and his wife like to visit the different breweries and brewpubs across Dane County.

"It's something we've tried to do. Go to different places and check out different beers," the craft beer enthusiast said. "It doesn’t matter where you go, they’re everywhere."

Hop Haus Brewery owner Sarah Hoechst and her husband Phil opened up their tap room in 2015.

"We just decided we were going to give it a shot," Hoechst said. "It was kind of a void that I think the city was missing and we were happy to fill it."

Five years later, the couple is expanding and will open a new brewing facility and restaurant in Fitchburg this summer. Hoechst said her business prides itself on being family-friendly.

"It’s something that’s important to a lot of people and it’s definitely a good thing," she added.

Craft Beer Boom
The Wisconsin State Department of Revenue provided NBC15 with a list of fermented malt beverage permits, which includes permits for breweries and brewpubs across the state.

The list spans from 1995 to 2019. In 2005, there were just 33 breweries, which included New Glaurus Brewing Company and other familiar names.

Starting in 2007, the Department of Revenue began offering permits for growing brewpubs. At the start of the decade, there was a 90 percent increase in breweries and brewpubs across the state of Wisconsin with 63 breweries and brewpubs listed with beer permits.

The biggest spike occurred in 2017 with a 220 percent increase from 2010 with 202 breweries and brewpubs with fermented malt beverage permits. Last year, Wisconsin saw a 49 percent increase with 301 breweries and brewpubs included in the Department of Revenue listings.

The UW-Wisconsin Madison Center for Community Economic Development and the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics studied the state’s producers of alcoholic beverages. The report found that breweries, wineries, and distilleries, contribute to a growing industry with just over $3 billion in industry sales.

The economic activity surrounding breweries, wineries, and distilleries also generates $205.5 million in revenues to state and local government. The report also noted that Dane and Milwaukee counties are seeing a wider distribution in these businesses.

100th Anniversary of Prohibition
2020 marks 100 years since Prohibition began in the United States. On January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified, which prohibited the sale, manufacture, or transportation of intoxicating liquor starting in 1920.

“A lot of breweries went out during that time, a lot of creative breweries did some different things to stay in business,” said David Fritz, President of the Potosi Brewing Foundation.

Fritz says during Prohibition, some breweries worked to bottle milk or brew a ‘near beer’ to stay afloat. The Wisconsin Historical Society says other brewers tried to produce soda, ice cream or cheese.

In 1926, Wisconsin voters worked to approve a referendum which would amend the Volsted Act and allowed for the manufacture and sale of beer with 2.75 percent alcohol. The following year, voters repealed the state’s prohibition enforcement law.

Wisconsin Senator John J. Blaine proposed a constitutional amendment for the repeal of prohibition. Wisconsin became the second state to ratify the amendment in June 1933. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified and national prohibition came to an end.

Resurgence of Potosi Brewing Company
Potosi Brewing is Wisconsin’s fourth oldest brewery and originally opened in 1852.

“At its peak, Potosi was the 5th largest brewery in Wisconsin in the 1940s and 50s,” said Dave Fritz, President of the Potosi Foundation.

In 1972, Potosi shut down operation but reopened in 2005.

Fritz says it was devastating to the community.

"The preservation of the history of brewing in this country is taken very seriously by our volunteers and our members," said Frtiz. "There’s a lot of history here and if you don’t preserve it it will be gone forever."

In 2008, a $7 and a half million dollar construction project, which was spearheaded by community members looking to re-establish Potosi Brewing.

Head brewer Jonathan Gentry says he takes a lot of pride in working at Potosi.

"Wisconsin is such a beer state," Gentry said. "Some of the really great breweries come out of the state of Wisconsin. Some of the oldest breweries come out of the state of Wisconsin."

Growing Female Base
As craft beer increases in popularity, it’s also growing more popular among female drinkers.

Hoechst says when Hop Haus Brewery first opened they were mostly marketing toward men.

“I would say it’s probably not 50/50 yet, but I bet it’s closer to 60/40 than it used to be,” said Hoechst.

Potosi Brewing has female overseeing an important part of the company. Amy Bolton is the Director of Brewing Operations and Quality Control and says it’s a rewarding job to have.

“A lot of people think beer is a male dominated field, but a lot of people are trying to change that,” said Bolton. “We have quite a few women who work here and it’s awesome.”

The Future of Craft Beer
With the growing number of breweries and brewpubs, local craft beer enthusiasts and other brewers in the industry are welcoming new ones to the industry.

"The more the merrier really is still our motto," said Hoechst. "It’s competition in a way but it’s all beer. but there’s so much that you can change and there’s so many different tastes.

Gentry said he wants to see more pop up in the Potosi area.

"I feel like in our neck of the woods, we're kind of under the radar," said Gentry. "I feel like we can handle more breweries in this area and people will still go to them and they’ll still be profitable and things like that."

Fritz believes the creativity of local brewers and the socialization of the culture is what makes craft beer popular.

"People enjoy the stories, the history of those local breweries and that’s what’s really made craft excellent," said Fritz.